This story has been updated since it was originally posted on Friday, June 15.
Last week, the principal of Franklin High School, Dr. Jennifer Wiley, posted on Facebook that the students of one of the school's teachers, Mike Lawson, had made a coffin for Ryan Dela Cruz, a 17-year-old FHS student who was shot to death two weeks ago at Martha Washington Park while hunting for ghosts in the woods with friends. He was hit by three bullets fired from a car. Cruz's killer is still unknown. But the police do not think the shooting was gang-related. It appears to them to be random. This life was lost because guns are a big part of our culture. Cruz spent the last moments of his young life bleeding in the woods.
Wiley explained in her post that it was not the first time the students and teacher have made a casket. But it was the first time she made the practice public. It's usually "a very intimate part of the FHS community that we don't typically share," she wrote.
I e-mailed her to find out why she decided to open up about it now, and this was a part of her response:
Her full response is at the end of this post.
I did not share the story of making a casket right away. Initially, I determined to keep that aspect of Ryan’s story more private. Notably, others had shared the story prior to me through other social media platforms – students and staff alike. I watched how the posting of the story positively affected and touched others’ lives. The outpouring of love that went into the process of building this personal homegoing carriage by the teacher and students was painfully beautiful. After some reflection, and after being so deeply, deeply affected earlier in the day as I watched staff and students sign the casket, I decided to lean into the story just as Ryan’s family had and trust my community to receive the story with the same love in which it was developed. Mike Lawson, woodshop teacher, shared in a painfully emotional simple sentence, “I hope I never get good at this”. The many ironies and contradictions loaded into one simple sentence just leveled me. I am still shaken by it.
In her Facebook post, Dr. Jennifer Wiley wrote:
Unfortunately, this is not the first casket Mike Lawson and our students have built for a student or staff member. Today as we scribed our final wishes to Ryan, Mike, in a shaken voice said, "I really don't want to get good at this." At this moment, like many moments at FHS, I knew I wasn't going home the same person I was when I left home this morning.
Last Friday, hundreds of Franklin students held a rally that at once addressed gun violence in schools, gun violence in the community, and gun culture in general. And it is here that the image of teens making caskets has so much power. We live in a society that refuses to do anything of substance about a problem that has clear solutions. Earlier this week, Vice President Pence "hijacked" an evangelic conference and talked about a man who was shot eight times, lived, and did not miss his Bible study. This was an expression of his faith in the Lord. But why was a man who wasn't in a war shot that many times? It did not matter that he was shot. It only mattered that he prayed and shut up. That is our country today.
Those who consider the idea or image of teens making a coffin for a fellow teen offensive have a view of this society that's truly perverted. Gun culture disconnects you from the actual consequences of guns. Making a coffin does the exact opposite. It connects one to the fact that there is no such thing as an individual. There are only lines of relations. One line comes from and goes to a mother, another from and to a father, another from and to a sibling, another from and to a friend, another, from and to a teacher. It does not end there. There are also, if you are very young, lines that are waiting to become and make you more and more of all that you are, which is others. This spatial and temporal network is the person, the point of arrival and departure. And when a person is killed, the pain from that point spreads across these lines to all of the other points of connection and intersection. These relations are made clear to a student, not when they are holding a gun, but when they are making a casket for a fellow student who has lost their life to a gun.
This is not the first time we have made a casket, burn box, or urn at Franklin. Each story is unique. We have a very skilled master craftsman teacher in our woodshop with very dedicated students. At Franklin, we have a culture that invites the life stories of all kinds into the school house as part of our individual and community identity. Our school very much has a family feel to it and we believe we have a mutual responsibility for one another. We affectionately coin this term “Qmmunity”.
Making a casket for a student/family is a very intimate, special experience. Social media has recently exponentially changed the landscape of story-telling. Stories now travel more quickly and to a broader audience than they previously did. With Ryan’s story, we did not share this aspect of the story with media alongside the many chapters of his story. We did not officially publish this story on our school website, our PTSA website, in newsletters nor our alumni website. We did not announce the making of the casket in any formal way other than to invite those students/staff wishing to participate in the process to do so. We have learned through other unfortunate circumstances that participating in building a casket can be cathartic and healing. It allows members of our community who are skilled in this way to both show love for Ryan and his family as well as to work through emotions during a trying time.
Many of us have been sharing our “Ryan” stories on Facebook as a way of honoring his legacy, working through our feelings, and sharing this chapter in our Franklin history. I had been sharing the various response to Ryan’s story on my FB page throughout. I often share inspiring Franklin stories on my FB page. My FB friends know full well how inspired I am by the staff, students, and community at FHS. I use FB as a chronological journal of FHS stories, more or less. I did not share the story of making a casket right away. Initially, I determined to keep that aspect of Ryan’s story more private. Notably, others had shared the story prior to me through other social media platforms – students and staff alike. I watched how posting of the story positively affected and touched others’ lives. The outpouring of love that went into the process of building this personal homegoing carriage by the teacher and students was painfully beautiful. After some reflection, and after being so deeply, deeply affected earlier in the day as I watched staff and students sign the casket, I decided to lean into the story just as Ryan’s family had and trust my community to receive the story with the same love in which it was developed. Mike Lawson, woodshop teacher, shared in a painfully emotional simple sentence, “I hope I never get good at this”. The many ironies and contradictions loaded into one simple sentence just leveled me. I am still shaken by it.
There are so many touching aspects to Ryan’s story. Each day a new aspect of his story unfolds that touches our hearts, stirs our souls, humbles us and inspires us. As I stated earlier, after careful reflection, I decided to share the story on my Facebook page for a few reasons. First and foremost, I believe I followed the family’s lead in telling Ryan’s story and leaning into public support versus leaning away from it. The family’s clear pride in Ryan’s desire to serve his country and be part of something bigger than himself has been so touching. Service to others is so central to the Franklin mission, we all saw our own reflection in Ryan’s dreams. His murder struck a chord in all of us—hence the student-developed hashtag, #DreamForTheDreamer.
I believe that sharing Ryan’s story not only says something about him but also about the deep and widespread impact he has had on Franklin and our community. I see how this story is impacting people and making them pause and think. By sharing his story, we are actually keeping his dream in motion. When we know the more intimate details of one’s life, and even one’s death, more people resonate with the story and also better understand the larger issues. Children ought to be able to play in the park without the fear of dying. Young people in the south end of this city, disproportionately feel unsafe. If greater focus on Ryan’s story helps to bring about greater attention to the safety of our youth, then Ryan’s legacy continues to unfold as a fierce force for good. That is, he continues to serve his community and country, even though it is not in the way he envisioned. He continues to make a difference.
Secondarily, I have been so moved by the response of this community since the loss of Ryan. These young people, and the staff who guide them, are just arrestingly amazing. I have not yet been able to find adequate words to describe it all. Sometimes pictures do a better job than words of capturing what we feel. I had hoped that by sharing this story within my community of friends I would be honoring the profound beauty of the Franklin community, the powerful teaching and learning that takes place in classrooms every day at Franklin especially woodshop. Mike Lawson is a master craftsman. More importantly, Mike Lawson is a master shepherd of the human heart. I wanted those in my personal FB fold to know and love Franklin as I do.
We ask that you take great care in honoring Ryan, his legacy, and his family in telling this story with the same care and love with which it has unfolded.
Franklin is a very special place, unlike any other place I have experienced before. The rich, diverse global fabric that is woven here manages to change each of us in ways for the better each and every day. Or as we say at Franklin—all day, every day. There are so many beautiful stories here.